The Walking Dead: What went wrong?

In TV on December 6, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Following the season finale of The Walking Dead, look for some changes. Last week, fans of the show learned that series creator Frank Darabont had fired his writing staff. Season 2 of the hit AMC horror-drama would apparently be relying on freelance writers along the same model as shows like Torchwood. (Not my example…surely there must be other instances,!)

I’m not sure what Darabont’s exact reasons were — certainly, the change in writers is happening in the face of an extraordinary ratings success. While executive producer Robert Kirkman stepped in to do some damage control (followed quickly by Gale Anne Hurd), one senses it is half-hearted. Saying “I don’t think Frank wants it out there that he’s just firing people of a successful show seemingly for no reason” eludes the reasons for the firing in the first place. You don’t clean house wholesale because people are looking for changes in career directions.

Speaking purely from a viewer’s perspective, I’m happy with the change-up. After the premiere, “Days Gone By,” I found the quality of the show to go steeply downhill. That first episode was chilling, edgy, and nervous – it kept the viewer guessing and uncertain, paralleling the journey of Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes. The narrative was gripping and tight. The landscape photography was gorgeous. (I love that it is shot in 16mm film.) And, most importantly, the zombies really felt like a threat.

The second episode, “Guts,” did maintain some of that momentum. The tension of the survivor-group is really well played, and the gritty realism is sustained with small details about the essential kinds of behaviour one should be displaying around zombies. (It’s also a chance to showcase the neato Steven Yeun’s Glenn, who convincingly portrays exactly the type of person who would last a long time in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.)

By the third episode, things started to fall apart. Leading the problems of the third episode, and posing serious concerns in subsequent ones, was the fundamental question of a television show about zombies: how do you sustain the affect or fear of this kind of villain? These aren’t the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. They don’t adapt. They’re not clever. They don’t infiltrate social groups. Zombies are essentially rabid animals that look like us. And they have a “best before” date, too – as we see from the first episode, they can get too hungry and expire (for a second time). So, with a finite number of these beasties running about, how does a writer keep up a consistent, and indeed, escalating, level of fear and tension?

I’m not sure The Walking Dead succeeded in this following “Guts.” The bigger threats are, perhaps unsurprisingly, human: the Latino gangs, the loose-cannons Daryl and Merle Dixon, the despair of characters like Andrea and Dr. Edwin Jenner, which threatens everyone around them. By the finale of Season 1, the zombies had faded entirely from the foreground, replaced by the longer-term concerns of starvation and supplies.

But even more than this, the plots were just messy, displaying a whirlwind of priorities. I fully understand that they’re writing the show from the narrow perspective of Grimes, his family, and, to a lesser extent, Shane Walsh. Still, there are too many dangling threads here for me to feel satisfied. If this is a show centered on a human drama, it’s an inconsistent humanity that gets showcased. There’s a pretty extensive list of issues here:

  • What about Merle Dixon? If you can’t wrap something up with the racist freak by the end of six episodes, you’re doing your viewer a disservice. I’m sure they’re setting him up as the primary foe for Season 2, but still. Gimme something.
  • The fourth episode, “Vatos,” showed what was a thriving and stable compound of gang members and senior citizens. Sure, their long-term survival may have been in question, but they looked organized and healthy and well-prepared in a paramilitary sense. But, when Grimes is speaking to Dr. Jenner in the finale about the bleak existence outside the gates of the CDC, he doesn’t mention this compound. Might they not have joined forces? There must have been at least 60 people who had found some way to survive amongst the hordes of undead. And yet when speaking with Jenner about the depth of their small group’s crisis, he gives the impression that they were the last people alive. I know who I would throw my lot in with, and it ain’t the Magic Bus crew.
  • Most importantly of all: what about Morgan and Duane Jones? I loved the first episode at least partly because of their intimate and convincing involvement. The scene in “Days” where the distressed husband cannot shoot his infected zombie wife is perhaps the most compelling one so far. And while I liked the nod to the father and son in “Wildfire,” it is terribly unsatisfying to end the six episodes without even a gesture towards where they are or what they are doing. (As with Merle, we’re obviously being set up for a later appearance.)

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the comic book series. I’m not sure how closely the show follows the formula. I’m evaluating it purely on a television-enjoyment level. And I have to say, I hope the shake-up with the writers addresses some of these matters I’ve mentioned. The viewer’s concern in these shows will always be, should always be, human. This is, after all, a drama series based on a classic tale of human survival, and not a shoot-em-up gorefest like Left 4 Dead. But, really, what ABOUT the zombies? Will they be more or less important in Season 2? Because I’m not sure they can get less important than they currently are at the end of Season 1.

I do sympathize from a writer’s perspective, however: with only six episodes, it is terribly difficult to write convincing storylines in such a tight framework. This may have been a studio decision, and not a writer’s one. Be that as it may, I hope the Season 2 writers can weave a more consistent and satisfying storyline than the abbreviated and stunted Season 1.


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